Remembering The Duke, 30 years later

Posted by · 12:38 pm · June 10th, 2009

John WayneAnne Thompson points us to a pair of John Wayne appreciations today that mark the Pearl anniversary of The Duke’s death.  Wayne lost his battle with cancer 30 years ago tomorrow and I have to say, it completely slipped my mind.

Almost a year ago, our own John Foote wrote at length about The Duke and the lack of appreciation for his work as an actor, rather than merely an icon.  I’m keen to agree with many of John’s points, and having just completed a thesis on the western genre a few months back, Wayne has been very much on my mind as of late.  But that was a piece about how the genre has evolved far beyond that simplistic, iconic persona into something more nuanced, much as the country has done the same.  Still, an occasion such as tomorrow’s anniversary is one for remembering his place and legacy.

Over at Cowboys & Indians magazine, Joe Leydon writes up The Duke with fond remembrances of his legendary roles and even a tip of the hat to his various steeds, never linked to one horse was Wayne.  Here is a section with thoughts from Wayne’s family:

Just as important as the film roles for which he is most beloved, Wayne continues to be widely admired as a real-life hero because of the grace-under-pressure courageousness he displayed in his battle against cancer and for his legacy John Wayne Cancer Institute.

Indeed, even Wayne’s sons and daughters express grateful surprise at the degree to which their father’s legacy continues to survive and thrive.

“Here it is, 30 years since my father passed away, and he still has the popularity, celebrity, and visibility of a living person,” Patrick Wayne marvels. “That’s a phenomenal feat in the entertainment business. It’s something I can’t really explain — it’s just a fact of life, like he’s a force of nature.”

“I think that even while he was alive, he had no idea how popular he was and how beloved he was,” says daughter Marisa Wayne. “And I think he’d have no clue that, even after being gone 30 years, he’d still be so popular and so beloved. I think that would mean a lot to him.”

Roger Ebert, meanwhile, has also penned a love letter to the man, with all the childhood reminiscence you could want from a write-from-the-heart sort such as Ebert.

Here’s a taste:

The first time I saw him, he was striding toward me out of the burning Georgia sun, as helicopters landed behind him. His face was tanned a deep brown. He was wearing a combat helmet, an ammo belt, carrying a rifle, had a canteen on his hip, stood six feet four inches. He stuck out his hand and said, “John Wayne.” That was not necessary.

John Wayne died 30 years ago on June 11. Stomach cancer. “The Big C,” he called it. He had lived for quite a while on one lung, and then the Big C came back. He was near death and he knew it when he walked out on stage at the 1979 Academy Awards to present Best Picture to “The Deer Hunter,” a film he wouldn’t have made. He looked frail, but he planted himself there and sounded like John Wayne.

John Wayne. When I was a kid, we said it as one word: Johnwayne. Like Marilynmonroe. His name was shorthand for heroism. All of his movies could have been titled “Walking Tall.” Yet he wasn’t a cruel and violent action hero. He was almost always a man doing his duty. Sometimes he was other than that, and he could be gentle, as in “The Quiet Man,” or vulnerable, as in “The Shootist,” or lonely and obsessed, as in “The Searchers,” or tender with a baby, as in “3 Godfathers.”

And from me, a clip from my favorite Wayne performance, in 1949’s “Red River”:

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5 responses so far

  • 1 6-10-2009 at 1:07 pm

    John H. Foote said...

    Great piece Kris — you beat me to it,as I had one for the weekend, but no matter, really wonderful and I am so glad people like yourself are re-discovering Wayne — I loved his work, from the first moment I saw him in an old B western running on a Saturday afternoon — my dad took me to see ‘True Grit” and for me the greatest image of courage in a movie is being outnumbered four to one, looking at the enemy and twirling his rifle, bravely marching forward to do battle like an over the hill knight — “The Searchers” is his greatest work, and one of the cinema’s greatest performances, and I so love his final performance in “The Shootist” as an old gunmen dying of cancer — how did the Academy miss him so many times for best actor?? — by my count he should have had seven nominations and two wins, nods for “Red River”, “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon”, “The Quiet Man”, “Rio Bravo” and “The Shootist”, winning for “The Searchers” and “True Grit”. There is something to say for his work in “Hatari” as well, a film curiously strong yet outside the Wayne canon — indeed thirty years have gone by since I read the headline with great sadness that Duke was gone, but the beauty of cinema is that he never really has left us, and millions of film folk around the globe are discovering his work for the very first time…and that to me is thrilling. I went toe to toe with a university professor who could have done me some damage in my admiration for Wayne — the prof hated him, but I did my thesis on Wayne’s greatest performances, and got an A, though I do not know if I convinced him — great acting is all about truth, believing the character, and Wayne, in his best work, was always truthful, always real and well aware of his limitations…I just love his work.

  • 2 6-10-2009 at 6:38 pm

    nattybumpo said...

    I’m a big fan of John Wayne. But I do think it’s clear that his success depended on his incredible charisma, and not on his acting ability per se. His acting was adequate to the task–it was sufficient to not get in the way so that his natural personality could shine though. He was like Carey Grant, Humphrey Bogart, and Clark Gable in that way.

    I’m not a big fan of Red River; Stagecoach is probably my favorite movie of his. Two of my all-time favorite shots are the introduction of the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach and Ethan Edwards’s dark silohuette in the doorway in The Searchers.

    I’m also a big fan of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Shootist, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. But the great thing is I’ve probably seen at least 30 Wayne movies and I have liked just about every one of them. A true star.

  • 3 6-10-2009 at 6:46 pm

    nattybumpo said...

    I was just looking at the Wikipedia entry for John Wayne and they show that the AFI has him listed as the 13th greatest (male)movie star of all time. How is that possible?!?

    I’d have him in the top ten for sure, maybe top five, and definitely ahead of Fred Astaire, Henry Fonda, Jimmy Cagney, Gary Cooper, and Gregory Peck, all of whom are ahead of him on the AFI list.

  • 4 6-10-2009 at 8:54 pm

    Bing147 said...

    The thing about Wayne, he could be a great actor, not just a great presence, but he was rarely asked to be. Far too often, especially in his weaker films, he fell back on just his charisma, those movies tend to blur together for me. I probably saw 30 when I was a kid but I couldn’t tell you which ones. However his best work, The Searchers, the Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Shootist, Red River, Stagecoach, showed a genuine acting talent that few actors possessed, its a shame he didn’t use it more often, but he’s of course still a legend and rightfully so.

  • 5 6-11-2009 at 12:45 pm

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    Excellent to remember The Duke. There’s still so many films of his I haven’t seen and I’d love to explore them in the near future.

    Kris, is there a way I can get a copy of your thesis on the Western? I’d love to read it.